What's Up With Arts Education?

(Thank you to all the GIA members and nonmembers who made our conference in Brooklyn a huge success. As always, GIA is working to make your lives easier and more informed. I was humbled and empowered at the same time by your stories, your confidence and your commitment.)

The Grantmakers in the Arts conference began with three day-long preconferences: Arts and Social Justice, Support for Individual Artists and Arts Education. Ten years ago, there would have been standing room only at the arts ed preconference. This year, it was the smallest attended of the three preconferences almost by half. So, what’s up with arts education? Where were all those funders who would have packed the room ten years ago?

I am afraid they are beleaguered and battle weary. I think they might be disillusioned. I think many have moved over to social justice or support for individual artists because, really, isn’t the inequity of schools a social justice issue and aren’t teaching artists a great way to support individual artists? I think there is an entire generation of baby boomer activists, like me, who shrug their shoulders and look the other way when we start talking about why forty years of funding has not produced the desired results. Why don’t we have a robust educational system that includes art specialists in every school, at every grade level teaching every arts discipline inspired by teaching artists and emboldened by the practical engagement of local arts organizations.

I’m no arts education expert. I learned what I know in the trenches. I was a theatre teacher. I was married to a teaching artist. I ran a statewide arts advocacy organization and developed programs to train generalists where there were no specialists and to help specialists network with each other. I brought arts integrated schools based on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory into the state. We trained entire staffs at the elementary level to implement the program. I helped write state standards and fought for graduation fine arts requirement credits. We trained students, parents and arts groups to become activists. I wrote op-eds and gave speeches about creativity and work-force development in the 21st century. I was chair of a performing and visual arts department at a small college whose primary graduates were arts educators. This does not make me an expert. It makes me frustrated.

Frustrated because I haven’t seen the results I wanted to see after decades of work. And I think I know why. We set out to give every child an education in the arts. We have ended up providing arts to as many children as we could, given the resources, the support and the inclination of the environment. We expanded arts organizations to have greater educational programs and we trained artists to be teachers. This is all very good and important work. I believe, however, that we took the road of least resistance and that we shied away from the heavy lifting…the work of public policy; the work of harnessing the will of the people to advocate for schools and children.

I know it’s been said before but I’m going to say it again. We have allowed the public school system in America to abdicate its responsibility in the classroom by not demanding their full attention. Instead, we’ve asked them to support artists in the classroom and to allow children to visit the museum, symphony or ballet once or twice a semester. At the same time, we’ve asked our arts organizations to go beyond their missions to become educators. There are performing arts organizations in our cities whose outreach and/or education budgets and staff are larger than their production budgets.

Successful arts education is a three-legged stool.

  1. Art teachers, there every day, teaching the basics;
  2. teaching artists, role-modeling for truly gifted students; providing inspiration for all students and confirming the power of artists in our communities; and
  3. arts organizations providing the out-of-school, after school practical experience and adventure that every child needs to feel part of the larger community.

Of these three legs, the one that keeps tipping the stool over is the lack of specialists in the classroom. The inability of local school districts to prioritize dollars for teachers in the arts is a disgrace in this country.

And then we do it backwards… in school districts that have arts specialists, they are mostly in high school, not elementary schools. Most elementary schools are lucky to have one music teacher and maybe one visual art teacher. If you have more than that in your local school district in every building, seeing students for more than 45 minutes a week, you are darn lucky. If you want a good high school soccer program, supported by parents, the administration and the community, you start with 5-year olds.

What do we do? First, we must stand together. Foundations, state and local arts agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Education Partnership, state and local arts education advocates, arts organizations, artists and service organizations should agree that we need all three legs on our stool and stop arguing whether its in-school or out-of school, specialists or artists. Then we have to get involved in the real work of changing policy and hearts at the local level (education is all about the local control.)

Our arts education preconference focused on advocacy. The true stalwarts of arts ed who were there want to know more about it, want their fellow funders to support it and need sophisticated and well-run advocacy organizations with strong leadership to provide the “no guts, no glory” out-front work to keep government accountable. Richard Kessler, executive director of the Center for Arts Education in New York is one of these “take no prisoners” kinds of guys. His soft-spoken demeanor doesn’t reflect accurately the courage of his actions. He has called it like it is in New York City. He has made some enemies but he speaks for kids, not funders or politicians. After years of running programs in schools, they have become a service and advocacy organization. Maybe that’s what we should be doing with our service organizations instead of asking them to become educators. Richard blogs on ArtsJournal.

The challenge is to look at the big picture. In our communities, is it wisest to support one program for fourth graders, or is it better to advocate and use our power to create one teacher for all fourth graders. We have allies in this work, other disciplines of math, science, physical education, teachers unions (which no one ever wants to talk about) and school reform activists who understand the value of the arts, small class sizes and involved parents and communities. We can initiate the involvement of parents and communities to advocate for arts at the local level. We can empower and inform them. We can create, fund and help operate well-staffed advocacy organizations that become the watchdog and community organizers of sustainable programs.

Think big, think collaboratively, think partnerships and remember that public policy changes slowly with pressure over time. And think about kids who don’t have classes in the arts because they live in a place where no one speaks up for them, or encourages their parents to speak up for them for reasons that run the gamut from economic/social to feeling uncomfortable talking about “art.”

What are we doing to improve education in a systemic and lasting way? Arousing the sleeping giant of parents, artists and organizations is the answer. Eric Zachary of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform gave this advice, “To get justice, you need power; the power in communities is in the people and organizing them to make change.” If we want change, we work together to provide programs that solve problems and we organize the people most affected by the problem as advocates and we support advocacy organizations with professional staff to keep their voices ever present in the public policy realm. Something needs to change before another 40 years goes by. We just need to join hands and get it done.